You’re at least vaguely familiar, I’m sure, with those many fanciful series of novels (quite various tonally and stylistically) that feature a squad, a unit, a shadowy government body charged with investigating “peculiar” crimes, malign time-travelers, Lovecraftian horrors (as in Charles Stross’s exceptional Laundry Files series), and so on. For a long time now, I’ve wished that some gifted writer would undertake another such series, centering on what I will lamely call a “Department of Faulty Generalizations” (we can trust the novelist to come up with something more clever than that). Here I offer gratis a few thoughts about such a project, in the hope that a writer or two will be inspired (no doubt taking the premise in directions I couldn’t have imagined).
The first half of a motto taken from William Blake is proverbial: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” The irony, of course, is that Blake himself is generalizing, flagrantly so, for the sake of needful provocation. An awareness of this tension, often deployed for comical purposes, must run through our series. Some of the characters must be almost pathologically averse to generalization, while others recognize that their quarry is faulty generalization. (One such must be the leader of the squad or bureau or whatever it is to be called.)
Because we live in a time when certain generalizations, in many quarters, arouse fury and psychic pain, even as the very people so wounded and enraged themselves deploy unwarranted generalizations without any awareness of self-contradiction, opportunities for topical humor in such a series will abound. For that reason, though, I would urge our writers not to limit themselves to low-hanging fruit. We don’t want a series that is too ideologically pat. All sides should be treated with both savage wit and grace. This doesn’t at all imply a wishy-washy “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach; rather, it is based both in humility and in a shrewd awareness of the audience.
People sometimes charge me with being far too ready to pipe up and complain at this or that generalization. I don’t think that’s fair, but perhaps I have a blind spot. I can honestly say that bad generalizations make my brain hurt! This suggests that at least some of the villains in our series, being aware of such visceral reactions, will seek to use that susceptibility against certain members of the squad, subjecting them to a barrage of such blather as can be found in print or online every day of the week, with escalating force. This would allow for exquisite parody of a familiar thriller scenario.
It would be good, too, to have at least one married couple on the team, one of them too leery of generalizations (the husband, probably), the other more sensible (the wife), so that the fundamental tension noted above could be teased out on the domestic front (again fertile ground for humor).
The more I think about this idea, the more I am in love with it. Imagine putting together several shelves of books for the offices of the bureau, some of them instances of deplorable thinking, others exemplary antidotes. And think of the riches of quotation, the aphorisms and lines from poems and more, that could be bandied about.
You may complain that as I’ve been nattering on about “faulty generalizations,” I haven’t given any examples! To which I reply that if you can’t think of a bunch of them yourself in sixty seconds, you probably aren’t a good candidate to write such a series. In any case, the point isn’t this or that instance; it is (again) the real tension between the indispensability of generalization and the ever-present temptation to force reality, so many-sided, so gratuitously excessive, into convenient little boxes.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.